A funeral services company which recently learned that one of its subsidiaries is negotiating a lucrative contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove dead bodies in areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, paid $100 million to settle a class-action lawsuit several years ago alleging the company desecrated thousands of corpses, and dumped bodies into mass graves.
Moreover, the company paid $200,000 to settle a whistleblower lawsuit that sought to expose that two members of the Texas funeral commission, the agency which regulates the funeral industry, were actually employees of the company they were supposed to monitor–an obvious conflict-of-interest.
In the civil matter, which took place at two Jewish cemeteries in Florida, the plaintiff’s attorney said that SCI secretly broke into and opened burial vaults and dumped remains in a wooded area where the remains may have been consumed by wild animals.
Details about SCI’s mass graves and mutilated corpses emerged publicly five years ago. According to the lawsuit, a former employee of Menorah Gardens & Funeral Chapels in West Palm Beach, which is owned by SCI, showed investigators human remains discarded in a wooded area near the cemetery.
Attorneys representing the families of the deceased who were buried at Menorah Gardens said they obtained a so-called “burial book” which included gruesome details about SCI’s burial practices.
â€œNo room for spouse,â€ â€œmove Mrs. Kolinâ€ and â€œdig this grave double deep,â€ said one excerpt from the book. A handwritten note obtained along with the book said, â€œWhere are Lippitis and who are Haskells and are they both deceased? Move Haskell marker.â€
Additionally, SCI buried “remains in locations other than those purchased by plaintiffs; crushing burial vaults in order to make room for other vaults; burying remains on top of the other rather than side-by-side; secretly digging up and removing remains; secretly burying remains head-to-foot rather than side-by-side; secretly mixing body parts and remains from different individuals; secretly allowing plots owned by one part to be occupied by a different person; secretly selling plots in rows where there were more graves assigned than the rows could accommodate; secretly allowed graves to encroach on other plots; secretly sold plots so narrow that the plots could not accommodate standard burial vaults; secretly participated in the desecration of gravesites and markers and failed to exercise reasonable care in handling the plaintiff’s loved ones remains.”
Kenyon International. a unit of SCI, is presently in charge of the delicate task of collecting the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dead bodies in the aftermath of the hurricane. Reuters reported Wednesday that Kenyon will receive $119,000 a day from the state of Louisiana for recovering the corpses of hurricane victims.
â€œThe contract between the company and the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals runs from Sept. 12 to Nov. 15 at a daily personnel rate of $118,980, after a 10 percent discount,â€ Reuters reported, citing documents released by the state. â€œKenyon also estimated expenses of around $639,000 for the first 31 days of its mission, covering everything from body bags to trailers to laundry services for its staffers.â€
SCI, Kenyonâ€™s parent company, has been plagued by scandals for more than a decade. The fact that its subsidiary Kenyon has bee in talks with the federal government, largely due to its close ties to the White House, to remove victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is ghastly given its track record for desecrating corpses.
The whistleblower suit dates back to 1999 and alleged that while he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush’s office interfered with an aggressive state probe into Service Corporation International’s embalming methods. SCI, Houston’s largest funeral services company, was headed by Robert Waltrip–a close associate of the Bush family. Waltrip contributed more than $45,000 to then Gov. Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns and ponied up $100,000 for former President George H.W. Bush’s presidential library.
An attorney for Eliza May, a former whistleblower who served as executive director of the Texas Funeral Services Commission, the state agency that regulates the funeral business, claimed that she was fired from her state job because she raised questions about SCI’s embalming practices and sought to expose the company’s misdeeds. She filed a whistleblower suit in 1999 alleging “she was the victim of “political” retaliation because she was threatening the interests of a well-connected political patron of the governor,” Newsweek reported in an April 21, 2001, story.
May claimed that current White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales was also complicit in the matter and even helped SCI in a cover-up. Gonzales, who was also Bushâ€™s gubernatorial counsel, reportedly received a memo on April 22, 1996, suggesting possible improprieties by two funeral commissioners with ties to SCI.
“Bush and his top aides have heatedly denied the charges and suggested the entire matter was drummed up by Democratic lawyers with political motives, Newsweek reported.
The memo, written by Marc Allen Connelly, who was general counsel to the funeral services commission at the time, and sent to Dick McNeil, the Bush-appointed chairman of the funeral commission, stated that Connelly “received information”from Texas state officials that two of the funeral commissioners charged with regulating the state funeral business actually worked for SCI-the largest funeral firm in the state. Although one of the commissioners was openly an SCI officer (the one appointed by Bush), Connelly stated that state banking records he inspected showed that another of the commissioners worked for a firm in which SCI had become the largest stockholder,” Newsweek reported.
The revelation represented a “a possible statutory conflict.” Texas law prohibited any two commissioners from having ties “directly or indirectly”to the same funeral company.
In the memo, Connelly told McNeil that he should “immediately inform the Governor of this apparent conflict and also recommend that the Governor take action to remove both (the two SCI-related commissioners) from the commission because both individuals knew or should have known of this conflict yet failed to notify the governor’s office.”
McNeil stated in a deposition that after he received the Connelly memo, he faxed it to Polly Sowell, who then served as Bush’s appointments secretary. “When she was questioned, Sowell was asked what she did with the memo. “I sent it to the General Counsel’s Office,” she said. But Sowell said she did not remember what happened after that and, in his interview with Newsweek, Gonzales said such a memo was merely one of many that might have crossed his desk and was otherwise not memorable. In any case, Bush never acted on the memo’s recommendations that the SCI affiliated commissioners be removed.”
Jason Leopold is the author of the explosive memoir, News Junkie, to be released in the spring of 2006 by Process/Feral House Books. Visit Leopold’s website at http://www.jasonleopold.com/ for updates.